Julian Lass

Eh bien, si vous voyez exclusivement le monde avec cette lunette-là, le monde sera teint de sa teinte et les mots pour exprimer votre sentiment se trouveront donc dans un rapport fatal avec les faits qui l'auront causé (Gustave Flaubert).

As the dog days draw to an end, began the famous narrator, and perhaps you, dear reader, can be part of my little experiment too, I set off to walk along the Baltic coast of north Germany. It is always best to start a tale with a specific time and a place, he said slowly, as one needs to set things very thoroughly like that, unless you have good reason not to. I know how to make the wind veer to help you, as you now find your bearings in the story. He cleared his throat and continued, glancing at the clock on the wall. So in September 2009 I travelled the short train ride from Lübeck to Timmendorfer Strand in Schleswig-Holstein, and I arrived on a glorious summer evening at the small seaside town known only to me from the stories my mother had told me of her childhood spent at a small boarding school there.

Even on my arrival I felt uneasy, as the train pulled into the small station and young Germans boarded with bicycles, a small red dog barking on the platform. I remember the doubt in my footsteps as I walked along the long road following the signs to the beach, down Bahnhofstrasse, Bergstrasse, Strandallee, until at last, aware of my growing hunger and thinking my uneasy thoughts I took refuge in a café, waiting for my anxiety to clear. But who am I in all this? He stopped again and took off his glasses. We should really have a ghostlike presence in here somewhere, he said softly, perhaps something omniscient. It makes for a different reality. He put his glasses back on and continued to read.

And though the sun was setting, it was some time before I felt able to take a dip in the perfectly flat sea. As I entered the water, a jellyfish floated past me, gently pulsing with the ebb and flow of the current, languid, unaware that it was the cause of my alarm, or that it was so close to the shoreline, an unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. It’s very difficult, he said, not to say impossible, to get physical movement right. You sometimes need to magnify something, describe it in a roundabout way. Now we have two animals in the story: a barking dog, who may still be barking at the small station, for all you and I know, and a floating jellyfish that may or may not be ebbing with the Baltic tide. I remember feeling fear that came from swimming above the unknown and unseen depths of the sea, and maybe you feel that fear too, which leads to thoughts and speculations, just as my thoughts then turned to wonder about my mother – such as how often she had walked this stretch of the beach watching the waves gently lapping the shore, and the many times she might have swum with friends here.

While I was trying to conjure up an image of the past, I was also choosing where to pitch my tent, the stings on my arms still aching, and with my mother's old boarding school in the woods behind me, I started to see the darkening trees, hidden spaces, and to remember fairy tales of threatening things lurking in wait. That folklore and myth and tales were in my thoughts was surprising to me, but my mind was saying something to me, warning me of dangers after dark.

There is a long pause before he speaks again. There on the beach, upon this deeper psychic substratum speaking to me, I was determining the course of my action that night, choosing a safe spot to sleep, how to boil water for tea, but at the time I think my thoughts dwelt on the fact that my mother spent her transition to womanhood here. The ending of one's school years begins a journey from a familiar and known past into an uncertain future. The word Nymphê, for example, names a young woman at the moment of her transition from maiden (parthenos) to woman (gynê), so that just as the house encloses the wife, as veil and carriage keep the bride apart from the wedding celebrants, so the woman herself encloses a secret. I realised that by coming here to the place of my mother’s childhood, I was perhaps gaining enough strength to face my own, uncertain future.